Portrait of Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen. Courtesy of the image collection of the diocese archives of Münster (Bildersammlung des Bistumsarchivs Münster, des Erbnehmers der Urheberrechte). The author is Gustav Albers. Reproduced pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

August 3, 1941

German Bishop Condemns The Killing Of People With Disabilities

On August 3, 1941, the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Count von Galen, delivered a sermon protesting the Nazi program to kill people with mental and physical disabilities.

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von Galen, Catholic, Bishop, Muenster, Munster, euthanasia, mercy death, insane, invalid, unproductive, incurable, Ich Klage an, I Accuse, Leonardo Conti

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The "euthanasia" program (code named “Operation T-4”) was Nazi Germany's first program of mass murder. In the fall of 1939, Hitler signed a document on his own private stationery which empowered physicians to grant a “mercy death” to “patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health.” The intent of the so-called “euthanasia” program, however, was not to relieve the suffering of the chronically ill and disabled. Its aim was the mass murder of the mentally and physically disabled, thus “cleansing” the “Aryan” race of persons considered genetically defective and a financial burden to society.

Public health authorities encouraged parents of children with disabilities to admit their young children to one of a number of specially designated pediatric clinics throughout Germany and Austria where specially recruited medical staff murdered their young charges by lethal overdoses of medication or by starvation. The killings rapidly expanded to include adult patients in public and private hospitals, mental institutions, and nursing homes for the chronically ill and aged. Beginning in January 1940, patients were transported to one of six gassing installations for killing and cremation. According to T-4’s own internal calculations, 70,273 people were killed at the six gassing facilities between January 1940 and August 1941.

A handful of church leaders, local judges, parents of victims, and some physicians protested the killings. Most famous, perhaps, was the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Count von Galen, who protested the T-4 killings in a sermon on August 3, 1941. Thousands of copies of the sermon were printed and circulated. Galen himself was not punished because Hitler did not want to clash openly with the Catholic Church, although a number of lower level priests who read his homily from their pulpits in the following weeks were persecuted. In the sermon, Bishop von Galen exclaimed to his congregants:

“If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill 'unproductive' fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail!... it is only necessary for some secret edict to order that the method developed for the mentally ill should be extended to other 'unproductive' people….”

In response to such pressures, Hitler ordered a halt to Operation T-4 on August 24, 1941. Despite the official halt to Operation T-4, however, “euthanasia” killings continued under a different, decentralized form throughout the German Reich. In all, at least 250,000 people with mental and physical disabilities were murdered from 1939 to 1945 under the T-4 and its auxiliary programs. 

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Typically, daily newspapers reported news the morning after it occurred. However, some papers were printed in multiple editions, including evening news. If you are using an evening paper, begin your search on the same day as the event being researched.


September 27, 1941 - October 12, 1941 News articles about Bishop von Galen’s sermon protesting the systematic killing of people with disabilities in Germany. The United Press and Associated Press wire services distributed stories on October 6 and October 10 respectively.

October 1941 News articles, editorials, opinion pieces, letters-to-the-editor, and political cartoons regarding Bishop von Galen and his protest against the killing of people with disabilities in Germany.

Bibliography

Aly, Götz, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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